Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, a veteran of the inflation crisis, debt crisis, banking crisis and deficit crisis, is tackling what he sees as a crisis in public service.

"The federal government . . . is increasingly unable to attract, retain and motivate the kinds of people it will need to do the essential work of the Republic in the years and decade ahead," Volcker said in receiving an American Enterprise Institute award Wednesday.

The crisis is neither Republican nor Democratic, he said. "The plain danger is that any administration or Congress will be handicapped in carrying out its policies and programs by a weak civil service."

Outlining the evidence, Volcker, chairman of the recently formed National Commission on the Public Service, said:Only 1 of 365 seniors surveyed at Yale expressed an interest in a civil service career.

Only 16 percent of the graduates of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government master's program over the past 10 years are in federal career service.

An increasing majority of senior managers in the federal government say they would not recommend young people emulate their careers.

The number of political appointments is now more than 3,000, in contrast to West Germany's 60, Britain's 150, and France's 400.

Career paths of permanent civil servants are truncated at lower levels of authority and responsibility than in other Western democracies.

Young people with an interest in the federal government are turned off by enormously cumbersome and time-consuming hiring practices.

New lawyers and business school graduates from the best universities can claim first-year salaries and bonuses in the range of assistant secretaries and undersecretaries.

With a few notable exceptions, public administration programs are underfunded, small appendages to business schools or political science departments.

" 'There is a debt of service,' " Volcker said, quoting Thomas Jefferson, " 'due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him.' "

Maybe this sense of noblesse oblige is "too elitist to fit entirely comfortably in the American tradition," Volcker said.

But President Kennedy told a group of interns, Volcker said, " 'It is my judgment that there is no career that could possibly be open to you in the 1960s that will offer you as much satisfaction, as much stimulus, as little compensation perhaps financially, as being a servant of the U.S. government.' "

Today, Volcker said, except for the point on compensation, Kennedy's "comment sadly sounds dated."

The former Fed chief also noted that Elliot Richardson said recently he has " 'many friends who once held responsible but not necessarily prominent roles in government and who now occupy prestigious and well-paid positions in the private sector -- some of them very prestigious and very well paid. Not one finds his occupation as rewarding as his government service.' "

Volcker said it was his impression that there exists a high level of competence, experience and dedication at senior levels, but that the government's ranks of talent were thinning rapidly.

He discounted the "cynical view . . . that a weak and ineffective bureaucracy, by its sheer inefficiency, protects our liberties and particularily our economic freedom."

The federal government means cancer research, central banking, air traffic control and weapons, Volcker said, and the idea that the public would accept mediocrity in public service is, in time, "an invitation to mediocrity as a nation."